Musselman continues learning at Arizona State

Eric MusselmanEric Musselman

TEMPE, ARIZ. — Breakfast came with game film running in the background, the newspaper sprawled out and the box scores marked with ink, the conversation about who had more rebounds and which teams played well the night before.

The day was filled with practices, games, meetings, talking to players and coaches, chasing balls for the team.

Bed time came after discussions of offensive and defensive schemes.

Growing up a coach’s son gave Eric Musselman a rare perspective on basketball.

The game is more than just a part of his life.

Basketball has taken hold of Musselman, the sway of bouncing balls and harmonic movement of players woven into the core of who he is, a passion of immersion intertwined with an insatiable quest for knowledge.

“The highs and lows of a game, of a season, become a part of your DNA; it’s like a fix,” said Musselman, an assistant coach at Arizona State under Herb Sendek the past two seasons. “I don’t know anything else. When I’m not coaching, I don’t know what to do.”

Basketball has been a part of Musselman’s life since before he could walk.

His father, Bill, was a long-time basketball coach, with stints in high school, college, the ABA, NBA and CBA during a 37-year career.

Musselman was his father’s shadow for most of the ride, absorbing without really understanding when he was younger, sharing Bill’s zest for the intricacies of the game as he got older.

Musselman was there when his father talked to Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown about the importance of the first meeting with a new team. He listened as Bill talked to San Diego Padres President Ballard Smith about his philosophies, listened to the discussions of what player to take in the team’s draft room.

Musselman had dinner with high school recruits who later became stars like Lionel Hollins and Adrian Dantley while his father was a college coach, interacted with some of the players in the world when Bill was in the pro ranks.

He sat in on staff meetings, helped break down game film, listened to coaches discuss strategies and player tendencies, got a firsthand look at the dynamics of a locker room.

Musselman absorbed it all, using the passed-along wisdom and all-in mentality to fuel a coaching career that includes 906 games as a professional coach, stints with three different national teams and his current job as associate head coach at Arizona State.

“I don’t even know how to comprehend, how to put into words how much being around, how much I learned being around him, much less the work ethic, discipline, things that you can carry into any world, any walk of life,” said Musselman, whose father died in 2000.

The work ethic and discipline helped Musselman become one of the most knowledgeable basketball coaches anywhere.

He had a passion for basketball from a young age, enthralled by what he believes to be the ultimate team game.

Musselman didn’t just follow in his father’s footsteps, he practically lived in them so he could be around the game, begging his mom to put off homework so he wouldn’t miss even an hour of practice, then not get home until 10 because dad worked late.

It became an education in hoops that never stopped.

Wherever Musselman went, whether it was as a 23-year-old coach of the CBA’s Rapid City Thrillers or leading the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, Musselman never stopped studying the game, constantly searching for ways to make himself and his players better.

There was no time for golf or a hobby like that. Musselman’s pursuit was all basketball, all the time.

“He’s invested a great deal,” Sendek said. “He grew up in a family where his father is a renowned coach, so you can imagine what the conversations were like at dinnertime or making drives, but he’s worked very hard at it and had a lot of great experiences.”

An ability to pass along that knowledge has been the catalyst for Musselman’s success.

Energetic and driven, he has a knack for knowing what to say at just the right time, knowing when a player needs a pat on the back or a kick in the butt.

Musselman’s enthusiasm becomes contagious to everyone who comes within his realm and his ability to convey his vast hoops knowledge has made him one of the most respected teachers in the game, on any level.

“He taught me how to play,” said Phoenix Suns forward Gerald Green, who played for Musselman in the NBADL. “He taught me how to be a professional. I feel like I’ve always had the ability to do certain things, but he gave me a different mindset that I never had as a professional. I give him thanks for me being in the situation I’m in now.”

After 19 years as a professional coach, Musselman took a break after he was fired by the Kings in 2007, working as a television analyst to keep himself in the game.

Once the competitive itch started making him antsy, Musselman decided to try the college game.

His father coached at Minnesota and South Alabama, so he had some knowledge of what it was like, but he still didn’t feel ready, certainly not for a head-coaching job.

In typical Musselman fashion, he methodically prepared himself to become a college coach, going around the country visiting programs at various levels to see the differences, spending time with Kansas coach Bill Self, Larry Eustacy at Southern Miss and at Western Illinois when Derek Thomas was there.

Musselman had seen too many coaches struggle in the transition from the NBA to college — and the other way around — so his priority was to find the right fit to serve as an assistant.

That opportunity came at Arizona State with Sendek, one of the keenest minds in the college game, and Musselman made the jump in 2012 with an assist from his wife, Danyelle, who put her career as a sports TV anchor on hold so he could pursue his dream.

With his knowledge reservoir filling up with the intricacies of the college game, the 49-year-old Musselman has now put himself in position to become a college head coach — but only if the right opportunity comes along.

“There’s not a financial obligation to do something and that wasn’t the case 15 years ago,” he said. “I feel fortunate that I’m in a place my wife loves, I’m learning every day, but having said that I want to be a head coach again.”

The opportunity will come, likely soon.

And you can count on this: Musselman will be ready.


Article was published March 2014. AP Sports Writer Bob Baum in Phoenix contributed to this story.

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